Commentary Magazine


Topic: Afghanistan

From Kabul to Kiev

A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

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A subtle shift in the way Americans process foreign affairs has become apparent, and it’s one that will likely have far-reaching ramifications. That shift presented itself in two news stories today. The first was Gallup’s report that “For the first time since the U.S. initially became involved in Afghanistan in 2001, Americans are as likely to say U.S. military involvement there was a mistake as to say it was not.” And in fact those who thought it was a mistake had the one-point edge in the poll.

It’s a bit jarring: the desire to be out of Afghanistan is one thing, but Americans saying they wish we never went into Afghanistan to root out the Taliban after 9/11 is really something else. It’s not war-weariness; it’s regret.

The other story was the continuing chaos in Ukraine. The death toll from the last two days of clashes in Kiev keeps rising, and the Ukrainian government seems to be losing even more control away from the capital. According to the New York Times, activists in Lviv, for example, claimed to have “taken control of the central government’s main offices in the region, resuming an occupation that had ended last Sunday. [An activist] said they had also raided the local headquarters of the state prosecutor, the Ukrainian security service and several district police stations.”

The crisis in Ukraine is getting far more attention. This is perfectly understandable: central Kiev is ringed by fire and the images, and the action they depict, demand attention. The Arab Spring earned this kind of coverage as well (if not more, at least in Tahrir Square). But the juxtaposition of the two stories is what makes the shift feel more pronounced: the Arab Spring, after all, had direct relevance to the war on terror. Americans today are having a very different conversation about matters of war and peace from the one we’ve been conducting for over a decade.

The shift away from wars that are winding down anyway is natural, but the focus on Ukraine should be more than a space-filler or the crisis flavor of the week. Indeed, as the right debates the future of conservative foreign policy after Iraq and Afghanistan, Ukraine (and situations like it) represents an integral part that debate. That fact was not lost on Marco Rubio, considered a 2016 contender, who put out a statement today standing with the Ukrainian opposition and urging sanctions on those involved in government-sponsored violence.

But it would be a shame if the debate on the right ends there. These sorts of events are likely to intrude on a presidential election. That happened in 2008, when Russia invaded Georgia. John McCain, an experienced foreign-policy candidate with a particular distaste for Vladimir Putin, responded forcefully. Barack Obama, woefully inexperienced and confused by the issue, put out a bland statement urging restraint on both sides. Within a couple of days, Obama had changed his mind and began echoing McCain. The Russia-Georgia war, and the fraught history of the post-Soviet sphere, intruded on the campaign and Obama was completely unprepared.

But it’s not just the possibility of such violent flare-ups surprising the candidates while on the campaign trail. Ukraine represents the kind of conflict that is complicated and nuanced and does not involve an American military component. The Obama administration’s spectacular diplomatic failures should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of clinging to preconceived notions as a substitute for genuine curiosity about the world.

And how conservatives in general view such crises is probably as important now as it’s ever been. At no previous time have the Republican Party’s candidates been so responsive to the grassroots. (The party’s base might think those candidates are still not responsive enough, but that’s a different story.) Part of this has to do with the effect of social media and the breakdown of the GOP’s next-in-linism. Over at the Federalist, Ben Domenech gets at this point with regard to Rand Paul’s prospective candidacy:

Paul can control that aspect of how he presents himself. What he cannot control is the chaos of world events, which may in the intervening time send the Republican Party’s Jacksonians back to their traditional ways. Today protesters are filling the streets in Venezuela; the Iran talks are struggling; the administration’s Syria strategy is proving the clusterfail we all expected; Japan is brandishing the sword; the North Korean human rights debacle is well in evidence; and Ukraine is literally on fire. How the Republican Party’s base reacts to this instability, and to Obama’s meandering foreign policy, remains an open question.

Look how many of those subjects have almost nothing to do with war-weariness or domestic surveillance–the two issues on which Paul leads and which have dominated the foreign-policy conversation. They have to do with building alliances, sending messages, choosing sides, standing consistently on principle, practicing attentive diplomacy, and understanding America’s adversaries.

Essentially, they require a coherent worldview that is absent from the current Democratic administration and which will be applied to a world different enough from the one confronted by the last Republican White House. If conservatives are prepared to have that conversation even while ObamaCare remains a potent issue and the economy trudges along, it will be an illuminating presidential election. If not, it will be a missed opportunity.

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Twenty-five Years after Soviet Afghanistan Withdrawal

A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

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A quarter century ago tomorrow, the last Soviet tanks rolled across the “Friendship Bridge” into Termez, a small town in Soviet Uzbekistan. The nightmare which the Soviet experience in Afghanistan had become was finally over.

Twenty-five years later, the Soviet experience still matters.

Washington D.C. in general and the White House in particular are infamous for convincing themselves that their own spin matters. As the United States prepares to withdraw most if not all of its forces from Afghanistan, political leaders and perhaps even some political generals will testify that the withdrawal confirms victory and a mission complete. They can spend hundreds of man hours crafting talking points and convince themselves that such things matter, but Afghans let alone the wider world interpret events through their own experience, not that of Washington spin artists.

Every Afghan tribal leader, village elder, and politician lived through the Soviet withdrawal and interprets current events through their own experience. So, what do they see? With the assistance of my colleague Ahmad Majidyar, I was asked to address this question at a presentation for a U.S. army unit. Here’s the core:

On one level, the goals of the Soviet Union and United States are remarkably similar on a macro level: Both seek the survival of the system they helped construct. The Soviets hoped to prevent outright Mujahedin victory, while the United States (and its NATO partners) seek to prevent outright Taliban victory. Both engaged similar efforts to advise, assist, and train. Policymakers in both cases were ambitious: The Soviets initially envisioned a 15,000-man advisory team, but ultimately settled for just a couple hundred. Likewise, it seems the United States might have to settle for far less than what its military strategies say is necessary.

Both the United States and Soviet Union faced similar obstacles: First was military stalemate. And, make no mistake, the United States and NATO are stalemated militarily by the Taliban, although that is largely because we have made a policy decision in the White House that we will not do what it takes to win. Both the United States and the Soviet Union also faced similar problems emanating from Pakistan, which had become a safe haven for the opposition.

Both Najibullah and Hamid Karzai had pursued a reconciliation strategy which led them to negotiate with the Mujahedin and Taliban respectively. In each case, the negotiations backfired as opponents smelled blood. Simultaneously, both the Soviet Union and United States have sought to bolster local and elite militias. This benefited security in the short term, but was corrosive in the long term. Regardless, both Moscow then and Washington now swore by the professionalism of their respective 350,000-man Afghan military. Such military, however, was heavily dependent on foreign assistance.

The Soviet Union and then Russia continued to provide about $3 billion in aid for each of the three years after the withdrawal, but as soon as the money ran dry, his regime and its military collapsed. The same will likely hold true for Karzai and the new Afghanistan Security Forces. A major difference, however, is that Afghanistan’s Najibullah-era air force could operate independently. Such cannot be said about Afghanistan’s air force today, which cannot function without ISAF assistance. That said, Karzai’s regime has international recognition. The Soviets had simply appointed Najibullah, who was therefore never able to claim internal legitimacy let alone win broad external recognition.

2014 will be a pivotal year for Afghanistan. The White House might hope for stability, but given the degree to which Afghans see history repeating, the opposite is much more likely true: As soon as the money runs out, expect the system to unravel. Momentum matters, and the first few defections will lead to a deluge. Many Afghans expect a civil war, or at least a multi-party civil struggle. How unfortunate this is, because it did not need to be this way.

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Afghanistan and Diplomacy Unhinged

Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

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Next week, my new book on the history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups will officially come out. A major theme of the book is that contrary to the statements of many State Department officials across administrations, it can very much hurt to talk.

Eli Lake has a piece at the Daily Beast that confirms what long has been rumored: U.S. officials have neglected to go after the Haqqani network’s finances because to do so, the Obama administration believed, might undercut diplomacy:

In the last 17 months since the U.S. government financially blacklisted the Haqqani Network, one of the deadliest insurgent groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not a single dollar associated with the group has been blocked or frozen, according to U.S. officials and one of the Congressman who oversees the Treasury Department’s financial war on terrorism. But it’s not just the Haqqanis—an ally today in the Taliban’s fight against U.S. troops and the Afghan government—who seem to have been spared from America’s economic attacks. According to a Treasury Department letter written in late November, not a single dollar been seized from the Pakistani Taliban, either, at least for 2012. The reason why, according to a leading Congressman, is that enforcing such sanctions might upset delicate negotiations between America, Pakistan, Afghanistan, the Taliban, and other insurgent groups.

The whole article is worth reading. For what it is worth, such inconsistent and counterproductive outreach to the Haqqanis is not limited to the Obama administration, but also extends far back into the Bush administration. Regardless, the episode highlights a consistent problem with U.S. strategy that transcends U.S. administrations and their approach to both terrorist groups and rogue regimes and explains why U.S. diplomacy consistently fails. The idea that ameliorating and offering concessions to adversaries enables successful diplomacy is demonstrably false. Rather, the most successful diplomatic outcomes come when the United States acts from a position of strength and seeks to coerce and weaken its opponents.

Targeting the Haqqani network with an aim to bankrupting it is the only way to succeed. Make no mistake: the conscious decision to allow the Haqqanis access to financial resources results directly in Haqqani terror attacks, as the network tries to leverage violence into a position of greater strength and influence. Never should the United States forfeit its leverage for the sake of hope and wishful thinking. Adversaries will come to the table when they have no other choice, and it should be the policy of the United States government to ensure they have no other choice. It is time to stop holding back when it comes to countering terrorists and rogues, and make their defeat by all prudent means the central pillar of U.S. policy.

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Drones Should Follow the Threat

The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

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The news from the Wall Street Journal that the Obama administration is looking to end drone strikes in Pakistan by 2018–the end of Pakistani leader Nawaz Sharif’s current term in office–is not terribly surprising. President Obama has spoken often, most recently in his State of the Union address, about his desire to shift away from a “permanent war footing” and, as part of that shift, to reduce the use of drone strikes, which hit new highs during the early years of his administration.

If only our enemies were moving off a war footing too. But they’re not. In Pakistan groups such as the Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani Network, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and the Pakistani Taliban remain more threatening than ever, even if al-Qaeda central has been weakened, and there is scant cause to think that the Pakistani state is interested in, or capable of, dealing with them on its own. Indeed Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency is in cahoots with many of these organizations, so it is more foe than friend in this struggle against terror. Drone strikes are certainly not a cure-all for the terrorist threat, as I have written in the past, but they are a valuable tool–and one that the U.S. should not give up lightly.

Especially when we are dramatically reducing our troop levels in Afghanistan, drones remain one of the few effective ways to strike at our enemies and those of our allies. Indeed the administration would be well advised to expand drone strikes, at least temporarily, within Pakistan to target the Quetta Shura of the Afghan Taliban which, for fear of offending Pakistani sensibilities, has been exempt from drone strikes before. With the Quetta Shura facing less military pressure in Afghanistan, following our troop drawdown, this would be one way to keep this organization off balance.

The question the administration should be addressing is not how quickly it can eliminate drone strikes in Pakistan but how quickly it can expand drone strikes to other areas where al-Qaeda has taken root–in particular western Iraq and northern and eastern Syria. This area, which crosses the Iraq-Syria border, has become a jihadist stronghold in the past year and it is a threat not just to regional governments but to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has just testified that there are 26,000 jihadist fighters in Syria alone, including 7,000 foreigners, and that some of them are plotting against the American homeland.

Neither the Syrian nor the Iraqi government has shown much ability to address the problem. In fact, we don’t want the Syrian government to address the problem because Bashar Assad’s preferred approach to counterinsurgency is to perpetuate war crimes. The Iraqi government isn’t as bad but it, too, favors a blunt force approach that usually backfires.

That is why I am so concerned about the administration’s plan to sell Apache helicopters and Hellfire missiles to Baghdad. Those weapons are as likely to be used against Sunni political foes of Prime Minister Maliki as they are against true al-Qaeda terrorists. I would have more confidence in U.S.-operated drones, although there is a question of where they would be based–Iraq? Turkey? Jordan? Israel? Liberated parts of Syria? Saudi Arabia?

Whatever the case, there is an urgent need for action to stop al-Qaeda from developing secure sanctuaries in Syria and Iraq, and drone strikes, assuming that local bases could be established, could be an effective tool in this fight if they are based on good intelligence. If the U.S. is going to shift part of its drone infrastructure out of Afghanistan–and, for the next few years anyway, this is probably a mistake–it should be shifted to the Middle East where the threat is growing every day.

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Karzai Pushing U.S. Out?

Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

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Hamid Karzai seems to be doing everything he can to drive the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

He is releasing dozens of dangerous detainees from custody–hardened Taliban who have killed American and Afghan troops and Afghan civilians–in spite of American pleas to keep them imprisoned.

He is also issuing hysterical denunciations of an American airstrike which caused some civilian casualties last week, with Karzai’s office exaggerating the number of casualties and not bothering to mention that the air strikes were called in to save Afghan troops who, with their U.S. advisers, were in danger of being overrun by Taliban fighters. Such denunciations are routine for Karzai, of course, but they are made more pernicious by the fact that his office seems to be faking evidence, including claiming that a photo of civilian casualties taken four years ago was actually taken last week.

All of which will only reinforce the tendency among most Americans to say, To hell with it—if the Afghans don’t want us there, why don’t we just leave?

In the first place, most Afghans do want us there. A continued U.S. presence was strongly endorsed by the Loya Jirga that Karzai convened and it has been endorsed by practically the entire Karzai cabinet. The issue isn’t the people of Afghanistan; it’s the behavior of Hamid Karzai, who is scheduled to leave office in April.

We can’t hold the future of our commitment in Afghanistan hostage to his whims because there are larger issues at stake. As the New York Times notes today, “The risk that President Obama may be forced to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by the end of the year has set off concerns inside the American intelligence agencies that they could lose their air bases used for drone strikes against Al Qaeda in Pakistan and for responding to a nuclear crisis in the region.” Those are valid concerns because drones such as the Predator and Reaper have relatively short ranges; they need to be based close to the areas where they operate and if the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it will have no other nearby air base from which to monitor Pakistan’s troubled frontier regions.

At this point, we need to simply ignore Karzai and try to develop a better relationship with whoever succeeds him. Because if we don’t stay in Afghanistan—and that means more than the 1,000 or 2,000 troops that Joe Biden is said to favor—there is a real danger of the country succumbing once again to the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies.

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Obama’s Choice in Afghanistan

If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, U.S. military commanders are telling President Obama that he should leave either 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or none at all. This seems like wise advice given the president’s proven predilection for splitting the difference–and for providing only the barest of bare bones necessary to carry out a strategy. For example, when he ordered the initial surge of forces into Afghanistan in 2009, he sent 30,000 troops, not the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had asked for, and imposed a time limit that hindered their mission.

For months, the White House has been leaking that no more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014–and possibly quite a few fewer. The military is right to warn that at a certain level, U.S. forces cannot sustain or defend themselves or their colleagues in the State Department and intelligence agencies. A handful of commandos cannot drop out of the sky and operate successfully–they need an infrastructure in place to support them. Same goes for military trainers, advisers, diplomats, and spies. 

So to that extent the military’s advice is on the money–although it is certain to be unwelcome in the White House which has long had a neuralgic reaction to leaks of force recommendations which Obama believes (perhaps rightly) are an attempt to “box him in” by the armed forces. 

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If the Wall Street Journal is to be believed, U.S. military commanders are telling President Obama that he should leave either 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014 or none at all. This seems like wise advice given the president’s proven predilection for splitting the difference–and for providing only the barest of bare bones necessary to carry out a strategy. For example, when he ordered the initial surge of forces into Afghanistan in 2009, he sent 30,000 troops, not the 40,000 that Gen. Stanley McChrystal had asked for, and imposed a time limit that hindered their mission.

For months, the White House has been leaking that no more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan past 2014–and possibly quite a few fewer. The military is right to warn that at a certain level, U.S. forces cannot sustain or defend themselves or their colleagues in the State Department and intelligence agencies. A handful of commandos cannot drop out of the sky and operate successfully–they need an infrastructure in place to support them. Same goes for military trainers, advisers, diplomats, and spies. 

So to that extent the military’s advice is on the money–although it is certain to be unwelcome in the White House which has long had a neuralgic reaction to leaks of force recommendations which Obama believes (perhaps rightly) are an attempt to “box him in” by the armed forces. 

But for an outside analyst what is troubling about the Journal report is not the troop figure recommendation. It is, rather, that the military is supposedly telling Obama, as a sweetener, that the entire force can be withdrawn by the time he leaves office–i.e., by early 2017. 

It is hard to imagine how any responsible commander could so recommend at this point–i.e., in early 2014–so perhaps the report is inaccurate. I hope so, because it is simply impossible to know now what Afghanistan will look like in 2017. Perhaps Afghan forces will have made so much progress by then that they will no longer need much American support. That is certainly what everyone, including me, hopes. But it’s not likely to happen given the extreme poverty of Afghanistan and the size of the security challenge it faces from an undefeated Taliban insurgency.

If history has taught anything, it is that premature pullouts of U.S. forces can sacrifice all that they have fought so hard to achieve. See, most recently, Iraq. Or before that, Haiti, Somalia, Vietnam, post-World War I Europe… the list is a long one of squandered opportunities. Whereas if U.S. forces stay for the long-term, near-miraculous progress is possible. See Germany, Japan, Italy, the former Yugoslavia, South Korea, and other examples.

It is certainly possible, even probable, that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be able to responsibly draw down over the years. But any such withdrawal should be based on realities on the ground–not on an artificial desire to give President Obama a political coup by announcing the “end” of the Afghan War before the end of his term of office. We’ve seen in Iraq that a similar impulse led to more war, not less. The same danger looms in Afghanistan.

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Yes, the Taliban Are Terrorists

Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

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Diplomacy often obstructs moral clarity. After the Clinton administration launched its high-profile engagement with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), for example, State Department officials bent over backwards to ignore the complacency of PLO leaders in financing and ordering acts of terror. As I document in my new book, a comparison of intelligence available to the State Department and the concurrent testimony of senior State Department officials to Congress shows that the diplomats simply lied about the character of their partners in order to avoid U.S. law that would mandate a cessation of aid should the PLO be involved in terror.

For the past five years, both senior military officials (up to and including Gen. David Petraeus) and senior diplomats (up to and including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton) have advocated for talks with the Taliban. At no time did policymakers consider the Bill Clinton administration’s sorry, five-year experience talking to the Taliban, an episode that caused diplomats to become distracted from the Taliban’s true aims and goals in the years leading up to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks.

Time launders terrorists, after all. While the press and many policymakers once mocked Secretary of State Colin Powell for wanting to work with “moderate Taliban,” by the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, that had effectively become the policy of the White House.

The Taliban’s attack on a Kabul restaurant frequented by foreigners is tragic, but should be a reminder of just who the Taliban are and what they represent. To call them an insurgent force is inaccurate: insurgents battle armies; they do not bomb restaurants and then shoot unarmed civilians. The Taliban are terrorists, plain and simple, and America’s premature withdrawal will empower them. The Taliban are not simply a Pashtun movement, as the late Richard Holbrooke once implied. True, many Taliban might be Pashtun, but not all Pashtun are Taliban and, indeed, many Pashtun have spent decades resisting the ignorant thugs who flocked to the Taliban.

It is time to put objective fact above diplomatic wishful thinking. The Taliban are terrorists, and seeking to include them in any post-withdrawal order is akin to negotiating with terrorists. Negotiating with the Taliban has not worked in the past, and there is no reason to believe any compromise will be possible in the future. Not talking to the Taliban, but allowing them to fill the vacuum created by America’s withdrawal is just as bad. Sometimes, adversaries simply need to be defeated, an accomplishment not possible when the White House constrains the military.

If the Taliban responsible for the restaurant attack had direct links to Pakistan—and they likely did—then it is time to designate Pakistan as a state sponsor of terrorism, no ifs, ands, or buts: diplomatic nicety does not benefit the United States; it makes them think America is weak and risible. Perhaps American diplomats and former senators find such talks sophisticated. Regardless, beyond the Pakistani Taliban and the Haqqani Network which are already designated, it is long past time to designate every other Taliban group which conducts attacks on civilians to be terrorists, and their foreign government sponsors to be state sponsors. While the Taliban has said that the attack on the Kabul restaurant was retaliation–a claim picked up and amplified by the New York Times–my colleague Ahmad Majidyar pointed out that the Taliban makes such excuses for external consumption only. What the Taliban did not mention was that it also killed three young civilians in a rocket attack in Kandahar, an attack that had everything to do with the character of the movement and nothing to do with feigned grievance.

Perhaps it will remain the policy of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to compromise with and perhaps even empower terrorists through the policies they advocate. But if so, they should acknowledge it openly and be accountable for the strategic and moral vacuity of their position.

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The Silly Attempt to Discredit Bob Gates

In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

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In 1948, a diplomatic tell-all appeared on the shelves intended to make a splash. By former U.S. Ambassador to Poland Arthur Bliss Lane, the book title blared “I Saw Poland Betrayed” beside the Polish coat of arms’ imposing white eagle, which seemed almost to be shouting the words. The cover also informs us that “Our Ambassador to Poland resigned to tell this story.”

In fact, the timeline is less condensed than that might imply. The betrayal Lane witnessed referred to the post-Yalta actions of the major powers in which FDR, Churchill, and Stalin sealed the fate of postwar Poland, which would be under the Soviet thumb for decades more. Lane resigned in 1947 after the sham Polish elections made it official. It was a headache for President Truman, one of many he inherited from Franklin Roosevelt. But it was not a surprise: Lane writes in the introduction that his resignation was accepted “with the understanding of President Truman … that I would tell the story as I had seen it.”

Lane’s book was only one in a sea of such memoirs, the latest of which is former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s account of his time leading the Pentagon in wartime during the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. Excerpts from the book have caused a stir, showing President Obama and Hillary Clinton admitting that their opposition to the “surge” was feigned for political benefit, and that the Obama White House was broadly dismissive of and disrespectful to the American military. And the pushback commenced immediately, today garnering a Politico article attempting to shame Gates for his timing and his candor.

The good news for Gates is that it is likely many people who clicked on the article stopped reading a few paragraphs in. That’s because Politico offers the first shaming quote to Sandy Berger. Yes, Sandy Berger–the Clinton administration official who pilfered national-security documents from the National Archives to protect his boss. Here’s what Sandy Berger has to say about a highly decorated public servant who is the recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom:

“Cabinet members who don’t leave on principle ought to avoid undercutting the president while he’s still in office,” said Sandy Berger, who was national security adviser during President Bill Clinton’s second term. “I think they have that duty of loyalty to the president. It makes me uncomfortable to see Gates do this.”

Imagine that, you might say to yourself: the world has discovered behavior that makes Sandy Berger uncomfortable. But the larger point is just how difficult it is to tarnish Gates’s well-earned reputation. Gates must be chuckling to himself at being attacked by Sandy Berger.

Berger isn’t the only one quoted in the article, and the story goes on to mention James Byrnes’s post-Yalta memoir, though it is a far less relevant example than Lane’s. We hear from others as well in the story notes of disapproval about the timing of the memoir and the fact that it criticizes those Gates served. Berger’s critique is the least sensible of all: that Gates should have resigned to write this book or waited until Obama was out of office.

But think about that for a moment. Should Gates have resigned “on principle” to tell his story before President Obama’s reelection? How would that have been received? Surely many would have preferred to hear such criticism before casting their vote, but it would have been seen as an attempt to influence the presidential election.

Others in the story echo the claim Gates should have waited until Obama left office. But at that point, someone else criticized in the book might be taking office. How would it look if Gates released the book this time in 2017, just in time to ruin the inauguration of Obama’s successor?

Additionally, we are currently winding down the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The decisions have already been made, so this won’t change anything. It just enables the conversation about these changes to include Gates, surely one of the most knowledgeable sources in the country. The book’s actual impact, then, is going to be limited. It will mostly involve keeping the public better informed about the debate we’re now having. The attacks on Gates may have been predictable, but that makes them no less gratuitous or silly.

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Our Contemptible Commander in Chief

The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

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The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward wrote a front-page story that includes excerpts from former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s new book, Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary of War.

According to Woodward, Gates “unleashes harsh judgments about President Obama’s leadership and his commitment to the Afghanistan war… It is rare for a former Cabinet member, let alone a defense secretary occupying a central position in the chain of command, to publish such an antagonistic portrait of a sitting president.”

But one begins to understand what underlies Secretary Gates’s judgment after learning about his thoughts during a meeting he attended. “As I sat there,” Gates writes, “I thought: the president doesn’t trust his commander, can’t stand [Afghanistan President Hamid] Karzai, doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.”

Bear in mind that Mr. Obama was interested in getting out even as he gave the order to deploy 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan. It was evident to some people at the time, and evident to everyone now, that President Obama had little interest in winning the war in Afghanistan. His aim was to check the box on the way to ending our involvement there.

Secretary Gates also writes about an exchange between Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton:

Hillary told the president that her opposition to the [2007] surge in Iraq had been political because she was facing him in the Iowa primary. . . . The president conceded vaguely that opposition to the Iraq surge had been political. To hear the two of them making these admissions, and in front of me, was as surprising as it was dismaying.

These are an extraordinary series of revelations. The commander in chief (a) sent troops to fight and die in a war (Afghanistan) he wasn’t committed to and in whose strategy he had no confidence in; and (b) as a senator opposed for partisan reasons a counterinsurgency strategy that turned a war we were losing (Iraq) into one we were winning.

Losing a war is among the worst things that can happen to a nation. Yet we have as president a man who was willing to have America lose in Iraq in order to advance his own political ambitions. And a man, by the way, who constantly chastises Republicans for putting politics above country while portraying himself as the one true patriot.

Having served in the White House for seven years and spanning two wars, I had first-hand exposure to the devotion Mr. Obama’s predecessor had for our troops and how fiercely dedicated he was to having America prevail in these conflicts. Partisan politics not only didn’t drive President Bush’s decisions; they didn’t even enter into them. That is as it should be. For Mr. Obama, on the other hand–at least based on the account by the widely respected Bob Gates–partisan politics was an overwhelming factor in guiding Obama’s major war decisions.

Barack Obama acted in a way that was selfish, cynical, and contemptible. He sent young men and women to die for a war he was utterly ambivalent about and which he had no interest in winning. (Recall that Mr. Obama decided to withdraw the surge troops in Afghanistan in the middle of the fighting season rather than what the military recommended. That decision made no sense from a military standpoint, but it did happen to occur shortly before the 2012 presidential election.) As a senator he did everything he could to ensure that we would lose the Iraq war.

What Secretary Gates has revealed is a moral stain on the president that will never be removed.

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Cautious Optimism in Afghanistan

With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

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With violence growing in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, among other places, there is not much good news to report in the greater Middle East these days. So it’s worth highlighting this report in the Wall Street Journal that, as the fighting season ends in Afghanistan, security forces have been holding their own against the Taliban with a considerably diminished level of American assistance.

The article is focused on Helmand Province and especially the Sangin district, a major battleground between Marines and the Taliban since 2009. Ace war correspondent Michael Phillips reports from Sangin

Masses of Taliban foot soldiers attacked this spring and summer in a bid to take over Sangin district; government forces turned them back. Mohammad Rasoul Barakzai, the acting Sangin district governor, describes the year-end situation as “calm,” with only intermittent Taliban attacks.

What holds true in Sangin is true for Helmand Province more broadly: “the Afghans have emerged from the warm-weather fighting season in nominal control of every heavily populated district of Helmand—a result that U.S. and Afghan commanders say should inject optimism into the often-gloomy debate over the country’s future.”

This runs counter to recent reports of the Afghan army doing deals with the Taliban in Sangin. Phillips reports that this was a low-level accommodation reached by junior officers who have since been disciplined.

If his report is right, it is certainly good news, suggesting that Afghanistan has a fighting chance to survive the pullout of most Western forces at the end of this year.

There is, however, a big caveat that must be added. While U.S. troops mostly pulled out of ground combat last year, they continued to provide substantial support to their Afghan partners. As the Journal notes, “the U.S. continues to provide supplies, close air support and air evacuation of the badly wounded.” That’s less significant than the U.S. role in years past but it is still a major enabler of Afghan capability. If you take away that American support, no one knows what will happen.

But even under the best-case scenario–which is that President Karzai finally gets off his duff and signs the security accord he negotiated with Washington–it is unlikely that U.S. forces will continue to provide close air support or medevac. (Instead, U.S. forces are likely to be limited to a few major bases.) The worst-case scenario is that the bilateral security accord falls through and Afghanistan is left entirely on its own.

The Journal report shows that it would be foolish to write off Afghanistan–as long as it continues to receive substantial American assistance. If that assistance isn’t forthcoming, all bets are off and Afghanistan could regress back to the dark days of the 1990s, which led to the takeover of the Taliban and their Arab allies in al-Qaeda.

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Afghan Army Gives Up District Without a Fight

I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

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I have long been critical of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, both because emphasis on development and the accompanying infusion of money sparks corrosive corruption, and also because the timeline President Obama announced in 2009 and an embrace of negotiations with the Taliban misreads the Afghan mindset. As I tell military audiences to whom I lecture, it’s important to remember that Afghans have never lost a war; they just defect to the winning side. Security of the family trumps fealty to any political force, and so Afghans won’t hesitate to switch sides in a way which to Americans would seem treasonous.

As transition approaches, it seems the State Department, Pentagon, and White House are infused with wishful thinking about how transition might go. If so, today’s events in southern Afghanistan should disabuse them of that notion. According to a tweet from Lt. Mustafa Kazemi, Afghan Army forces surrendered the Sangin district of Helmand without a fight, after being threatened by the Taliban. He elaborated, here.

Momentum means everything in Afghanistan. PowerPoint planning doesn’t capture local psychology, no matter what ISAF commanders may believe. Afghans want to side with the strong horse, not the horse that, for domestic political reasons, wants to go home.

If accurate, today’s events foreshadow the post-transition crisis will hit Afghanistan far quicker than military and diplomatic planners expect.

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The American Commitment to Afghanistan

The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

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The future of U.S. forces in Afghanistan post-2014 looks uncertain with President Hamid Karzai refusing to sign a Bilateral Security Agreement that he had negotiated with the Obama administration. But the general assumption among Afghan analysts is that sooner or later Karzai will sign–and if he doesn’t, the next president of Afghanistan will–because all responsible Afghans understand that their country desperately needs continued American assistance to survive the ongoing threat posed by the Taliban.

The question for American policymakers is what the U.S. commitment should look like. For a persuasive and informed answer check out this report issued by my employer, the Council on Foreign Relations, and authored by a couple of RAND Corporation analysts, Seth Jones and Keith Crane.

The highlights include:

* Promote multiethnic coalitions—rather than individual candidates—for the 2014 presidential election and, for the eventual winner, encourage the appointment of a cabinet and senior officials that represent Afghanistan’s ethnic and cultural constituencies

* Pursue a foreign internal defense mission that includes between eight thousand and twelve thousand residual American troops, plus additional NATO forces.

* Support Afghan government–led discussions with the Taliban and other groups over prisoner exchanges, local cease-fires, and the reintegration of fighters….But U.S. policymakers  recognize that a comprehensive peace settlement with the Taliban is unlikely in the foreseeable future.

* Foreign donors should continue to provide $5 billion a year in funding to sustain the ANSF. The United States and other international donors should also provide economic assistance of $3.3 billion to $3.9 billion a year through 2017.

One can quibble with this recommendation or that, but on the whole this is a very sensible proposal informed by Jones’s considerable time on the ground working with U.S. Special Operations Forces.

The question is whether these policy options will actually be implemented. The obstacle is not just Karzai’s intransigence; there is a big question as to whether the Obama administration will support a commitment of this size. Given where the conversation stands in Washington, sending 12,000 U.S. troops is as at the high end of what’s possible even though U.S. military commanders have testified that a minimum of 13,000 or so troops is really needed.

I hope that President Obama himself reads the report and especially the section that outlines the stakes in Afghanistan: “A civil war or successful Taliban led insurgency,” the authors rightly warn, “would likely allow al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups such as the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, Haqqani network, and Lashkare-Taiba to increase their presence in Afghanistan.” And a civil war or successful Taliban takeover is likely absent the kind of U.S. commitment outlined in the report.

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A Method to Karzai’s Madness?

Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

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Hamid Karzai’s refusal to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the U.S., which has been laboriously negotiated with the Obama administration, is maddening–but it does come with a silver lining: Karzai’s foot-dragging is showing that there is widespread popular support for a continuing American troop presence and of course for the money that comes with it. There was a telling vignette at the loya jirga that Karzai called to endorse the agreement–and whose verdict he is so far ignoring. As Najib Sharifi, a Kabul-based analyst, notes:

Almost 40 minutes into Karzai’s speech, a female senator, Belqis Roshan, from Farah, a province which lies along the border with Iran, raised a banner covered with anti-BSA slogans that compared the signing of the agreement to committing Watan Feroshi, or treason.

What the senator had not judged was the response she received from other participants. Chants of “Death to slaves of Pakistan” and “Death to slaves of Iran” suddenly filled the hall, prompting even Karzai to laugh, something he has not done publically for years. He finally intervened, urging calm, and called on the jirga participants to not accuse those who opposed the BSA of being spies for neighboring countries.

How often do you hear those who oppose a U.S. military presence in their country being denounced as traitors? Especially in a Muslim country? Yet that is what is now happening in Afghanistan where everyone, it seems, except for the Taliban, is urging Karzai to get on with it and sign an agreement that will enable the government’s survival past 2014.

Why isn’t Karzai complying so far? Afghanistan, like other countries in the Middle East and Central Asia, is notorious for its conspiracy theories and Sharifi has a good one to explain Karzai’s actions:

By holding off on signing the agreement, he is generating further domestic support for the pact. In other words, he is effectively building public pressure against himself. Why? Because there is a historical stigma attached to any agreement that includes the establishment of foreign military bases in the country. While Afghans currently support the creation of these bases, with the country’s uncertain political future, Karzai is worried about his legacy and he does not want to be seen as the person who facilitated this development if the domestic sentiment changes. By increasing the public pressure, he is creating an environment that would allow him to sign the BSA, while claiming that he had no other choice but to yield to the public demand.

Far be it from me to predict or explain Karzai’s actions, but this actually seems like a compelling theory. I just hope that Sharifi is right that Karzai will soon end the charade and sign the BSA, because if he doesn’t the Obama administration can use that as an excuse to walk away, leaving Afghanistan–and U.S. interests in the region–in the lurch.

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The Commitment to Afghanistan

The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

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The success of American military commitments is usually in direct proportion to their longevity. Post-war Germany, Japan, and South Korea turned out to be big success stories in no small part because U.S. troops are still based there. Kosovo continues to progress for the same reason. Somalia, Haiti, Lebanon, and Iraq, among others, are still troubled because U.S. troops have departed. The same thing happened with Reconstruction–it failed largely because Washington pulled federal troops out of the South prematurely.

For this reason it is good news to see the U.S. and Afghanistan bridging their differences to reach agreement on an accord to keep U.S. forces there past 2014–if that is in fact what has happened. That is certainly what was hailed by the Obama administration yesterday, but today the erratic Hamid Karzai threw a predictable spanner into the works by saying at the opening of a Loya Jirga in Kabul that the agreement should not be signed until sometime next year, possibly by his successor.

Assuming the accord is actually signed and implemented, it will bolster Afghanistan’s prospects for the future and hurt the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies who are scheming to return to power. The Obama administration deserves credit for prolonging what is already an unpopular military commitment even if there is cause for concern about the size of the force the president is prepared to send. No decisions have been reached, but news accounts suggest that Obama is contemplating sending only 4,000 to 8,000 personnel to perform counter-terrorism and advisory work, and that none of the advisors will be deployed in the field where they could be most effective.

It is a mystery where this figure comes from since military commanders have recommended a bare minimum of 13,000 or so troops. For some reason Obama seems to think that a much smaller force can get the job done-just as he though a smaller force would suffice when he granted only 30,000 or so of the 40,000 troops that General Stanley McChrystal requested in 2009. (Obama also added a timeline for their deployment, which the military resisted and which hurt the chances of mission accomplishment even more.) Such minor differences in force size will in no way temper domestic political opposition to the mission, but they can have an impact on the prospects of mission success on the ground.

It’s hard to know why Obama is willing to take a courageous stand for a prolonged U.S. presence in Afghanistan yet refuses to send the right size force. But whatever the president’s reasoning, at least he has not adopted the “zero option” favored by his advisers. The decision to commit the U.S. to Afghanistan post 2014–assuming it holds up–at least gives that war-ravaged country a fighting chance to hold off the Taliban, Haqqanis, and other malignant actors.

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Drug Report Bad News for Afghanistan

I’m a little late to the story because I’ve been on the road, but the most recent United Nations report on drug cultivation in Afghanistan should be cause for concern about what happens in Afghanistan as transition looms. Afghanistan already produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the UN now reports that opium cultivation is up by around 50 percent, while land being used for cultivation is at record levels. The situation is more worrisome because opium prices are already high and because the cultivation is not only in areas from which U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn, but also in locations theoretically under NATO control.

Because the United States military believes—correctly—that opium cultivation funds insurgency and lawlessness, the fact that the trajectory of Afghan cultivation is upwards bodes poorly for stability as transition looms. Nor should Americans take solace in the fact that some provinces which previously grew tons of opium—Badakshan, for example—no longer do, because many of these supposedly poppy-free northern provinces have simply turned to marijuana, which can be just as profitable. Afghans further say that they believe the opium crop in the coming year—planting is already under way—will be even higher.

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I’m a little late to the story because I’ve been on the road, but the most recent United Nations report on drug cultivation in Afghanistan should be cause for concern about what happens in Afghanistan as transition looms. Afghanistan already produces about 90 percent of the world’s opium, and the UN now reports that opium cultivation is up by around 50 percent, while land being used for cultivation is at record levels. The situation is more worrisome because opium prices are already high and because the cultivation is not only in areas from which U.S. and NATO forces have withdrawn, but also in locations theoretically under NATO control.

Because the United States military believes—correctly—that opium cultivation funds insurgency and lawlessness, the fact that the trajectory of Afghan cultivation is upwards bodes poorly for stability as transition looms. Nor should Americans take solace in the fact that some provinces which previously grew tons of opium—Badakshan, for example—no longer do, because many of these supposedly poppy-free northern provinces have simply turned to marijuana, which can be just as profitable. Afghans further say that they believe the opium crop in the coming year—planting is already under way—will be even higher.

There is a tendency among Afghan policymakers to treat missions individually rather than holistically. I’ve sat through discussions of planning for Afghanistan’s April 2014 elections, and other discussions addressing the logistics of moving equipment out of Afghanistan. Drug cultivation and “green-on-blue” violence are another topic, planning for which often fails to take into account other topics.

One thing is certain: pundits can debate the merits of the surge, and diplomats can praise the transition plans underway, never mind that both the surge and the transition seem to be ripped right out of the Soviet Union’s 1988 and 1989 playbook. The White House and Pentagon can praise the understanding reached with President Karzai, never mind that the miniscule numbers of troops won’t be able to do much beyond secure the capital, if that. The facts on the ground—of which opium cultivation is one of many—give very little reason to be optimistic about Afghanistan’s future and stability once the NATO presence is reduced to the point of ineffectiveness.

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Don’t Blame Maliki for Iraq Violence

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

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Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will meet President Obama today, as Max Boot notes. His visit comes against the backdrop of a sharp escalation in violence, with terrorists killing almost 1,000 people a month. While Max notes the relative success of Iraqi Kurdistan (and he could have also mentioned much of southern Iraq as well), he places much of the blame for the current violence on Maliki himself:

…The overall situation is grim, and Maliki has no one but himself to blame. If he had pursued more inclusive policies, he could have kept the Sunnis who had turned against al-Qaeda in Iraq in 2007-2008 in large numbers from reverting to the way of the gun. Instead Maliki has allowed his paranoia to run rampant by targeting senior Sunni figures for arrest and prosecution. 

Frankly, Max is not alone. The Washington Post published a masthead editorial yesterday calling on the United States “to hold Maliki accountable.” Certainly, there’s enough blame to pass around, but it would be wrong to place too much blame on Maliki.

First of all, when a terrorist detonates a car bomb in a crowded market, the fault lies with the terrorist. Period. There are many places in the world where political grievances exist; none excuses terrorism.

There are two schools of thought with regard to terrorism. The first sees terrorism’s roots in grievance, and the second in ideology. Those who subscribe to the grievance-based approach believe if a grievance is addressed, the cause for terrorism goes away. I’d argue far more of the Iraq-based insurgents root their terrorism more in an absolutist ideology. To accept the grievance-based philosophy is a bit dangerous as well, not only because it legitimizes some terrorism but also because terrorists and other rogues know the susceptibility of Western diplomats to declarations of real or contrived grievance, and it simply encourages some elements of society to stake out ever more extreme positions.

When it comes to Iraq, Maliki is between a rock and a hard place. The surge was wise military strategy, but it was at times politically short-sighted, especially as some elements concluded that the shortest path to empowerment was the appeasement that followed violence rather than the ballot box. Indeed, the most extreme sectarian parties fared poorly in the most recent provincial polls; they were beat out by more moderate parties.

It is also dangerous to suggest that Iraqi security forces should not have sought to arrest Tariq al-Hashemi and Rafi Issawi if valid evidence against the two prominent Sunni politicians existed and, indeed, ample evidence exists. Being a Sunni politician should never lead to a free pass for terrorism. That Issawi is already paying blood money to those who his guards murdered suggests there may be something to the charges. Maliki should certainly target those leading Shiite death squads with the same fervor. While I would like to see Muqtada al-Sadr behind bars one day—and believe one of the Bush administration’s greatest mistakes in Iraq was not authorizing the shot when Muqtada al-Sadr was in the crosshairs—Maliki has dispatched his forces to take on Shiite militias in Basra and elsewhere.

Maliki may have flaws—though I cannot think of a single Iraqi politician (or American politician for that matter) that does not. But he has guided Iraq well through some turbulent times against the backdrop of a cabinet that as often answers more to political bosses outside the government rather than to the prime minister. Despite frequent accusations to the contrary, he does not cultivate a personality cult. Other Iraqi politicians do, however, most notably Muqtada al-Sadr and some Kurdish regional leaders. He is hardly authoritarian as his opponents too often seek to paint him because Iraqi political rhetoric still tends toward exaggeration. That said, Maliki should be held accountable, but that accountability should come first and foremost from the Iraqi people in the 2014 elections and not by an American administration which has largely abandoned Iraq hastily passing judgment. A major flaw of U.S. policy toward both Iraq and Afghanistan has been prioritizing personality over system. It is time to respect the system.

The United States should seek close ties with Baghdad. Not only would that enable Baghdad to better resist Iranian pressure, but it would also enable American businesses to take advantage of the growing Iraqi market. Long-term defense cooperation—for example, with regard to provision of the F-16 fighters Iraq seeks—would also help Iraq protect itself in a hostile neighborhood and would create a framework for decades of exchanges and interaction. It would make it harder for the Iranian government to try to run roughshod over Iraqi sensitivities. Such decisions should be based on American interests and Iraqi needs, not frustration with the outcome of the 2010 Iraqi elections or misdirected personal animus toward Maliki himself.

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Is Iraq’s Present Afghanistan’s Future?

Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

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Back in 2011, President Obama tried briefly and not very hard to attain a Status of Forces Agreement that would have allowed U.S. forces to remain in Iraq past 2011. That effort failed, as we know, with disastrous consequences–the civil war that was all but extinguished by the surge in 2007-2008 has reignited with a vengeance as al-Qaeda in Iraq has come roaring back from the grave. As the Washington Post notes, recent violence in Iraq “has virtually erased the security gains made in the past five years. More than 5,300 Iraqis have been killed this year.”

There are many reasons why the U.S.-Iraq accord failed to be completed. One of the less noticed but more important was Obama’s unwillingness to send more than a few thousand U.S. troops to Iraq in spite of U.S. commanders’ recommendations that he send at least 15,000 to 20,000. Many Iraqi politicians figured that a commitment of fewer than 5,000 U.S. troops would be mainly symbolic and ineffectual and would not be worth the resulting political controversy.

Is history repeating itself in Afghanistan? It’s too soon to say, but there is cause for concern when one reads articles like this one in the New York Times today reporting that “NATO has endorsed an enduring presence of 8,000 to 12,000 troops, with two-thirds expected to be American.” That translates into 5,300 to 8,000 U.S. troops, considerably below the 13,600 that Gen. Jim Mattis, former commander of Central Command, estimated to be necessary–and that itself was a low-ball estimate in the judgment of many military experts.

At some point there is a real risk of Afghan politicos, like their Iraqi counterparts, deciding there is no point in having their sovereignty violated and being exposed to anti-American criticism in return for a token force that can accomplish little. If that were to happen, the future of Afghanistan isn’t hard to imagine. Just look at Iraq today–only Afghanistan will probably be worse off because it faces a more malignant insurgency with more entrenched cross-border bases and its government and security forces are weaker than their Iraqi counterparts.

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The Future of Afghanistan

Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

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Secretary of State John Kerry and President Hamid Karzai met in Kabul this past weekend and emerged to proclaim that they had reached an agreement “in principle” on a U.S.-Afghanistan security treaty that would allow U.S. troops to remain past 2014. Alas we have heard many times in the past that accords had been reached “in principle” only to break down over the details. We’ll have to wait and see if this tentative accord actually gets signed.

Even if it does, however, it will not remove the cloud hanging over Afghanistan’s future, because the accord Kerry and Karzai worked out will almost surely not specify the level of American involvement. Even assuming the “zero option” is really off the table (which I think is a premature conclusion at this point), it matters a great deal how many troops Obama chooses to maintain and how much money he chooses to spend on the Afghan National Security Forces.

Before he stepped down at Central Command, Gen. Jim Mattis testified that it would be necessary to keep 13,600 US troops in Afghanistan post-2014 along with some 6,000 allied forces. That strikes me as a pretty barebones commitment, given the US need to station forces not only in Kabul but also in southern and eastern Afghanistan so as to continue Special Operations raids against Al Qaeda, Haqqani, and other terrorists.

Yet the leaks emanating from the White House suggest that Obama will dispatch fewer than 10,000 U.S. troops–perhaps many fewer. That, in turn, will have a ripple effect because the European commitment will be contingent on the size of the American commitment: the fewer American troops, the fewer NATO troops.

The Afghan security forces have shown they are capable of holding back the Taliban largely on their own this fighting season, but they are suffering heavy casualties, and they remain dependent on American forces for critical functions such as medical evacuation of wounded personnel. Without medevac on call–along with intelligence, logistics, and other support–there is a real risk that the Afghan forces will crumble under an unrelenting Taliban assault.

A few U.S. troops are better than none, but unless Obama is willing to carry out the best advice of his generals and maintain a substantial American contingent after 2014, their usefulness will be limited. Unfortunately Obama hasn’t been much for taking military advice since he decided to accelerate the withdrawal of surge forces in Afghanistan in the summer of 2011 in contravention of Gen. David Petraeus’s recommendations.

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Heading for the Exits in Afghanistan

For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

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For months, U.S. military leaders have been quietly leaking word that the “zero option” was off the table and that the U.S. would keep thousands of troops in Afghanistan after 2014. That may be their view of what’s needed; it may even reflect what they’ve heard from their political masters. But it’s clearly not what the White House is thinking. If you want to know what President Obama and his aides are up to, read this Washington Post article:

During a testy video conference in June, President Obama drew a line in the sand for Afghan President Hamid Karzai. If there was no agreement by Oct. 31 on the terms for keeping a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, Obama warned him, the United States would withdraw all of its troops at the end of 2014.

With that deadline less than three weeks away and deep rifts persisting, the White House appears increasingly willing to abandon plans for a long-term, costly partnership with Afghanistan. Despite the Pentagon’s pleas for patience, much of the rest of the administration is fed up with Karzai and sees Afghanistan as a fading priority amid far more ominous threats elsewhere in the world.

Later on the article quotes a former deputy assistant defense secretary, David Sedney, who until May oversaw Afghanistan policy at the Department of Defense, saying, “It appears our attention to Afghanistan is drifting, and if we don’t do something soon, it may drift too far to recover.” The article ends with this:

One official noted that both Obama and Rice appear only marginally interested as attention has shifted to Syria and a growing al-Qaeda presence in Africa.

“If you look at the threat matrix,” this official said, “Afghanistan isn’t blinking the brightest. Why invest more billions and more lives?”

This lack of interest on the American side is at the crux of the current impasse, although Hamid Karzai has contributed his share to the current woes with statements blasting the U.S. and the West in intemperate terms. But, according to press reports, Karzai actually agreed to grant U.S. troops immunity under Afghan laws–the issue that scuppered an agreement with Iraq.

Apparently, if the reporting is to be believed, the big issue at the moment is his demand that the U.S. conclude a mutual-defense treaty with Afghanistan similar to those with major non-NATO allies. The Obama administration disingenuously claims this would mandate U.S. troops crossing into Pakistan. More plausibly, this would simply demand a long-term U.S. commitment to Afghanistan’s defense, within Afghanistan, which the administration doesn’t want to grant.

There is also disagreement over how much room for unilateral operations in Afghanistan U.S. Special Operations forces will retain in hunting down al-Qaeda and its ilk. Karzai wants the mission turned over to Afghan forces, which the U.S. is resisting, even though his demand could be finessed by putting Afghans in the lead with U.S. troops along as “advisers,” a practice becoming increasingly common today anyway.

It is possible these issues will be resolved by Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Kabul. But I am not terribly optimistic because I think significant elements of the administration, starting at the top, are looking for a way out of Afghanistan and they are using disputes with Karzai as an excuse. The president who once called Afghanistan the necessary war appears to be motivated now primarily by the necessity of disengagement, at least as he sees it.

The results for U.S. interests and for Afghanistan are likely to be dire, because if U.S. troops leave, so will our NATO allies. And the U.S. and its allies will be unlikely to continue pouring in the billions of dollars necessary to keep the Afghan security forces and the Afghan government functioning. That makes a collapse, of the kind that occurred after the Soviet withdrawal, much more likely–and with it a return of the Taliban and Haqqanis and their al-Qaeda allies.

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The Temptation of Relying on Anti-Terror Raids

The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

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The paradox, and saving grace, of the Obama presidency is that while the president is indecisive about big things–the Afghan surge, intervention in Syria, entitlement reform, repealing the sequester, reopening the federal government, even the fast disappearing “Pacific pivot”–he is very decisive about ordering drone strikes and Special Operations Forces (SOF) raids on terrorist targets. Indeed, Obama may well be the most SOF-friendly president we have ever had.

This weekend, acting on the president’s orders, Special Operations teams came ashore in both Somalia and Libya. In the latter country, the operators captured Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, alias Abu Anas al-Liby, who is wanted for the bombing of two U.S. embassies in Africa in 1998. In the former country, SEALs targeted a senior leader of the Shabab, the Islamist terrorist group responsible for the massacre at the Westgate mall in Nairobi. It is unclear if they killed their target because the team had to withdraw under fire, but even if the Somalia raid was not entirely successful, it sent a welcome message to terrorist plotters that they cannot hide from the long arm of the U.S. Special Operations Command.

That is a much-needed message to send, and it helps in a small way to begin undoing some of the damage from Obama’s vacillation over Syria, which signaled American confusion and retreat. But, while important and welcome, Special Operations raids and drone strikes will not by themselves win the war on terror. That is why, even as these surgical strikes have proliferated in recent years, al-Qaeda and its affiliates have spread their reach further than ever. To counter the spread of violent extremism requires not simply one-off missions designed to eliminate senior leaders; what is required is steady, long-term engagement to build up indigenous institutions capable of keeping order on their own.

The U.S. track record in this regard is mixed. Somalia, although still lawless, has been a success story of sorts because U.S.-backed African Union forces have bolstered the sway of the government in Mogadishu and pushed back the Shabab, leading the group to lash out in high-profile terrorist attacks outside the country, in Uganda and Kenya. Libya has not been nearly as successful, because the U.S. and its allies have not provided enough support to the pro-Western government in Tripoli to allow it to build up security forces capable of pushing back the militias that still rule the streets.  

The situation is even worse in Iraq, where al-Qaeda in Iraq has managed to revive itself after the withdrawal of all U.S. forces. Violence rates have soared back to 2008 levels, while al-Qaeda in Iraq has also exported its operations to neighboring Syria, where the U.S. seems to have no strategy for rolling back gains being made by both Shiite and Sunni extremists.

The picture in Afghanistan, meanwhile, is mixed: The U.S. has made a massive troop commitment to bolster the government in Kabul, but it is not clear if the U.S. will maintain any forces after 2014 to build on the gains that have been made. The latest news reports indicate that the White House is once again threatening to pull all U.S. troops if an impasse over the terms of their deployment is not resolved. If the “zero option” does come to pass, it risks undoing everything that U.S. troops have fought for.

So by all means send out the special operators to collar or kill the bad guys. That is risky but necessary. But also remember that this is only one “line of operation” in a larger strategy that we desperately need to counter the continuing growth of Islamist extremism.

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